The changing face of office politics

Jun 13 2007 by Nic Paton Print This Article

It's well recognised that to get to the top takes not only talent, but talent at certain "dark arts" guile, ruthlessness and political acumen to name but three. But the ability to be a good office politician is nowadays less of a negative than you might think.

The notion of office politics is changing, according to a new British poll, with managers beginning to view what it means to be "political" in a very different, and much more positive, light.

Where office politics once meant turf wars, back-stabbing or pursuing personal advantage, now the majority of managers see it as about building alliances and consensus, according to the research by the Chartered Management Institute.

British business leaders, it found, are increasingly rejecting old-fashioned notions of office politics in favour of creating partnerships, building relationships and developing constructive political skills.

The report, produced with Warwick Business School, found fewer than a third of the 1,495 managers polled viewed politics as simply "protecting their turf". Fewer still - just a fifth - believed it was about "pursuing personal advantage".

More common was the belief that good political skills were about "alliance building" (six out of 10), followed by "interaction with government" (four out of 10) and "reconciling differences" (four out of 10).

Asked why they gave high ratings to the political skills that helped build partnerships, senior managers focused on the value external relationships brought to business.

Almost all 92 per cent identified "the impact of public opinion" as a key factor behind relationship building.

Nearly nine out of 10 suggested it was a way to "scan the competition" and nearly three quarters claimed partnerships could "influence trade agreements".

Yet, despite recognising the value of political skills, UK business leaders' admitted there was significant room for improvement.

Just 58 per cent claimed they were "good" at politicking. Nearly one in five admitted to being "average" and just one per cent thought themselves "excellent".

By 2012, partnership working was expected to become a priority for UK business leaders (63 per cent, up six points from today), followed by the need to influence regulators or government (53 per cent, up 10 points) and secure external funding (35 per cent, up 3 points), found the CMI.

Many senior executives also believed that in five years time their current internal activities would no longer take priority.

For example, in today's business environment 43 per cent focused on competing for internal resources but only 34 per cent thought this would be valuable in 2012.

Perhaps surprisingly, overcoming internal tensions and influencing internal decision-makers both dropped by 18 per cent (to 21 and 28 per cent respectively), the survey found.

Mary Chapman, CMI chief executive, said: "In a dynamic business environment, where globalisation is opening new doors on a daily basis, the shift to external partnership-building is good news for UK business.

"It shows leaders accept that success can be achieved by the way they work with individuals.

"They recognise the need to talk, and relate to, people on a personal level. Of course, internal relationships will continue to be important, but there is now a clear understanding that results will be achieved through wider collaboration.

"Increasingly, how good an individual is at using their political skills, with employees and external audiences, will determine personal, and business, success," she added.

The report also showed that the majority of business leaders had developed their political skills through bitter experience.

Nearly nine out of 10 said that "learning from mistakes" had been key and 85 per cent said the "experience of managing crises" had been valuable.

Two-thirds also suggested that "learning from role models" had been useful.

Professor Jean Hartley of Warwick Business School added: "No individual or organisation exists in a vacuum and the impact of their actions can be felt across a diverse set of stakeholders.

"This means that political skills are not the 'dark art' that so many associate with them. Rather they are fast becoming a mainstream element of leadership needed across all business sectors," she added.